"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Conflict in Egypt

Elizabeth Iskander, Sectarian Conflict in Egypt: Coptic Media, Identity and Representation (Routledge, 2012), 224pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us:

In light of the Egyptian uprising in early 2011, understanding the dynamics that are shaping Egyptian politics and society is more crucial than ever as Egypt seeks to re-define itself after the Mubarak era. One of the most controversial debates concerns the place of religion in Egypt’s political future. This book examines the escalation in religious violence in Egypt since 2005 and the public discourses behind it, revealing some of the complex negotiations that lie behind contestations of citizenship, Muslim-Christian relations and national unity.
Focusing on Egypt’s largest religious minority group, the Coptic Orthodox Christians, this book explores how national, ethnic and religious expressions of identity are interwoven in the narratives and usage of the press and Internet. In doing so it offers insights into some of Egypt’s contemporary social and political challenges, and recognises the ways that media are involved in constructing and reflecting formations of identity politics. The author examines in depth the processes through which identity and belonging are negotiated via media discourses within the wider framework of changing political realities in Egypt. Using a combination of methodological approaches - including comprehensive surveys and content analysis - the research offers a fresh perspective on the politics of identity in Egypt.
The book is also available in a cheaper Kindle edition. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Holy Places

Holy places are often scenes of conflict among not so holy people. A recent publication examines this phenomenon:  Marshall Breger et al, eds., Sacred Space in Israel and Palestine: Religion and Politics (Routledge, 2012), 352pp.

About this book the publisher tells us: 

Religion and religious nationalism have long played a central role in many ethnic and national conflicts, and the importance of religion to national identity means that territorial disputes can often focus on the contestation of holy places and sacred territory. Looking at the case of Israel and Palestine, this book highlights the nexus between religion and politics through the process of classifying holy places, giving them meaning and interpreting their standing in religious and civil law, within governmental policy, and within international and local communities.
Written by a team of renowned scholars from within and outside the region, this book follows on from Holy Places in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Confrontation and Co-existence to provide an insightful look into the politics of religion and space. Examining Jerusalem’s holy basin from a variety of perspectives and disciplines, it provides unique insights into the way Jewish, Christian and Muslim authorities, scholars and jurists regard sacred space and the processes, grass roots and official, by which spaces become holy in the eyes of particular communities. Filling an important gap in the literature on Middle East peacemaking, the book will be of interest to scholars and students of the Middle East conflict, conflict resolution, political science, urban studies and history of religion.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Fate of Dhimmis

Milka Levy-Rubin, whom I interviewed here about her recent book on the legal status of Jews and Christians under medieval Islam, has an article in a collection of essays just published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in their Jewish Culture and Contexts series. David M. Freidenreich and Miriam Goldstein, eds., Beyond Religious Borders: Interaction and Intellectual Exchange in the Medieval Islamic World (2012, 221+pp.). One other article in this collection will be of special interest to Eastern Christians, and biblical scholars: Sagit Butbul's "Translations in Contact: Early Judeo-Arabic and Syriac Biblical Translations").

About this book the publisher tells us:
The medieval Islamic world comprised a wide variety of religions. While individuals and communities in this world identified themselves with particular faiths, boundaries between these groups were vague and in some cases nonexistent. Rather than simply borrowing or lending customs, goods, and notions to one another, the peoples of the Mediterranean region interacted within a common culture. Beyond Religious Borders presents sophisticated and often revolutionary studies of the ways Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers drew ideas and inspiration from outside the bounds of their own religious communities.

Each essay in this collection covers a key aspect of interreligious relationships in Mediterranean lands during the first six centuries of Islam. These studies focus on the cultural context of exchange, the impact of exchange, and the factors motivating exchange between adherents of different religions. Essays address the influence of the shared Arabic language on the transfer of knowledge, reconsider the restrictions imposed by Muslim rulers on Christian and Jewish subjects, and demonstrate the need to consider both Jewish and Muslim works in the study of Andalusian philosophy. Case studies on the impact of exchange examine specific literary, religious, and philosophical concepts that crossed religious borders. In each case, elements native to one religious group and originally foreign to another became fully at home in both. The volume concludes by considering why certain ideas crossed religious lines while others did not, and how specific figures involved in such processes understood their own roles in the transfer of ideas.
Levy-Rubin's article is entitled "Shurūt 'Umar: From Early Harbingers to Systematic Enforcement." Shurūt 'Umar refers to the various sets of restrictions placed upon dhimmi peoples under early Islam--chiefly Eastern Christians and Jews, the so-called peoples of the book (or, sometimes, "protected" peoples). Levy-Rubin notes that it has been common among historians to speak of these restrictions as being haphazard, idiosyncratic, and varying greatly from region and place, with strict enforcement in only a few places, and lax enforcement in many. She, however, stakes out a different claim: "While during the first century of Islam one cannot speak of a consistent policy adopted by Muslim authorities toward the dhimmis and enforced upon them, this situation changed considerably starting in the second century and especially from the third century of Islam onward" (31). Unlike other scholars, she claims that an "established set of accepted regulations" existed. While noting that in some instances "information concerning the enforcement" of regulations is "partial and insufficient," nevertheless the content of those regulations is not. What were some of those restrictions she notes?
  • the destruction of all crosses, especially those on churches, and the refusal to allow them to be carried in religious processions, which were themselves severely curtailed
  • the prohibition on raised voices in prayer or loud celebrations
  • prohibition on the building of new churches, and sometimes the destruction of existing ones
  • special markings on the houses of dhimmis (which Jews especially objected to, fearing they were "idols")
  • the forced leveling of dhimmi graves so that they were equal to, or lower in height than, Muslim ones 
  • the slaughter of all pigs
  • an attempt to curtail the employment of non-Muslims, especially in imperial positions (this regulation is one of the ones that was not, in fact, widely or successfully enforced in many places for the simple reason that Jews and Christians were much better educated and much more reliable, and thus Muslim rulers could scarcely do without them). 
  • the refusal of the use of pack-saddles instead of side-saddles, and only on donkeys, never horses
  • the learning and use of Arabic by dhimmis was forbidden
  • sartorial restrictions:
    • obligation to cut the forelocks
    • obligation to wear a leather girdle (zunnar)
    • prohibition on wearing a turban
  •  and, of course, the obligatory jizya or hated poll tax heavily levied against all dhimmis.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Problem of History in Ecclesiology: Further Thoughts on Congar

In my initial discussion of Yves Congar's wonderful My Journal of the Council, I noted that anyone with an interest in so many events and personages in twentieth-century Catholicism, and Christianity writ large, would find these diaries fascinating. I am pleased that an historian of the stature of John O'Malley has recently come out calling Congar "the council’s single most important theologian." Congar's journal (also available in a Kindle edition), which I continue to savor, records several themes, but perhaps none is so clear in this book, as in Congar's larger oeuvre, of the problem of history in ecclesiology and the lack of real, wide-spread awareness of what actually happened in Christian history in general, and in East-West relations in particular. The Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart is absolutely right when he says that too much of Christian division, East-West division above all, is the result of bad history. 

Much of what gives an Eastern Christian pause in reading Congar has to do with the attitude he records on the part of many Latins who seemed to regard their own tradition as the only valid one. This "soteriological exclusivism," as it has been called, was, of course, by no means limited to the Latin Church: some Orthodox apologists also adopted it, as did not a few Protestants. But none seemed so convinced of it as certain Roman Catholics, often viewed as the "minority" at Vatican II: people who argued for an "ecumenism of return," who exalted the pope in absurdly ultramontane terms, and who, in general, wanted the council to do nothing so much as flatly restate, in baldly propositional terms, dogmatic claims to which all the world would be summoned, under pain of eternal damnation, to make their simple and unquestioning submission. 

I am not running down this minority. In some respects, I side very closely with them, especially in the views of some of them on what happened to the Latin liturgy in the aftermath of the council. I also think they are correct in recognizing--in a way that few others want to do--the uncomfortable and disconcerting hermeneutical and historical problems raised by a council that accepted and praised (often, we now realize, with undue enthusiasm) what popes, scarcely a century before, had condemned in the most hair-raising terms: relations between Church and state (including the question of "religious freedom"), relations with non-Catholics, and the vexed questions of relations with Jews and Muslims, inter alia. Anyone who wants to be taken seriously today simply must admit that there are very serious, real, and obvious hermeneutical problems in reconciling past Catholic teaching with what the council condoned: the famous problem of a "hermeneutic of continuity" vs. a "hermeneutic of rupture." Apologists for the council insist on the former, but have, in my estimation, done an extremely poor job of demonstrating that continuity in ways that do not do violence to history. I also think that such apologists paint themselves unnecessarily into a corner by trying to demonstrate continuity when, on its face, none exists. Why not adopt the vastly simpler and certainly more honest course of frankly admitting that on certain questions, the Church (or at least the papacy, which is not the same thing) has simply changed her mind? This is not suggesting a change in major dogma, but instead a recognition that on more practical and political questions (e.g., democracy, human rights, relations with Jews and Muslims), views have changed, and there is nothing wrong with that. The skandalon consists not in doing this, but precisely in refusing to do so.

Congar had no problem in admitting when his confreres got it wrong, or adopted positions demonstrably unsupported by the facts of history. Time and again he skewers those guilty of what another great historian, Robert Taft, would call the substitution of "confessional propaganda" for real history. Congar knew too much to let a lot of this nonsense pass by without comment. But it seems to me, fifty years after the beginning of the council, the problem remains with us, and we have work ahead of us. Still today history is used and abused for present felt purposes--as Congar and Taft, and more recently Bernard Lewis and Margaret MacMillan, have shown. We are, then, once more indebted to Congar for raising these difficult questions, and for refusing to allow us to get away with facile sloganeering in the place of deep understanding not only of the bare "facts" of history, but also of the difficult relationship between changing and contingent historical forms, and the eternal and changeless truths they are supposed to convey. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Iconophilia and Iconophobia in Early Islam

With all the lunacy going on currently about movies and Muslims, a recent book helps to give us some critical historical perspective on iconophilia, iconophobia, and iconoclasm in early Islam:  Kenneth Holum and Hayim Lapin, Shaping the Middle East: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in an Age of Transition, 400-800 C.E. (University Press of Maryland, 2011), 263pp.

This book contains numerous articles of interest, including "Images, Icons, and the Public Space in Early Islamic Times: Arab Christians and the Program to Claim the Land for Islam" by Sidney Griffith.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Essays by leading archaeologists, historians, and art historians on the Middle East during the four centuries preceding the rise of Islam. The most recent archaeological findings with interpretation are presented. Archaeological plans, as well as color photographs of sites and artwork, are included.
Caesarea Palaestinae: A Paradigmatic Transition?
Caesarea in Transition: The Archaeological Evidence
Qays riyah as an Early Islamic Settlement
Archaeological Evidence for the Sasanian Persian Invasion of Jerusalem
The Province of Arabia during the Persian Invasion (613-629/630)
Continuity and Change in the Cities of Palestine during the Early Islamic Period: The Cases of Jerusalem and Ramla
Pella, Jarash, and Ammn: Old and New in the Crossing to Arabia, ca. 550 750 C.E.
Changes in the Settlement Pattern of Palestine Following the Arab Conquest
The Peninsular Arab Presence in Oriens (Bil d al-Sh m) in Byzantine and Umayyad Times
Aspects of the Rabbinic Movement in Palestine, 500 800 C.E.
The Muslim Appropriation of a Biblical Text: The Messianic Dimensions of Isaiah 21:6 7
Sefer Eliyyahu: Jewish Eschatology and Christian Jerusalem
The Many Facets of Middle Eastern Art: Late Antique, Christian, Islamic

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Eastertide to Ecclesia

As I noted before, the greatest man of 19th-century Christian letters (at least in the anglophone world), John Henry Newman, remains singular for many reasons, not least that he was the only Western theologian of his time translated into modern Greek. His influence by and on the Greek Fathers is increasingly well documented, including in Benjamin King's recent book, Newman and the Alexandrian Fathers: Shaping Doctrine in Nineteenth-Century England

Another book has recently been drawn to my attention: Donald Graham, From Eastertide to Ecclesia (Marquette UP, 2011, 231pp.).

About this book we are told:
Donald Graham substantiates the claim made by many, but rarely demonstrated, that Newman anticipated concerns that preoccupy the Church today and supplied theological resources that allow us to address them in a fresh and intelligent manner. In this book Graham establishes that Newman was a pioneering thinker who must be exempted from the charge that nearly all modern theology is characterized by neglect or forgetfuless of the Holy Spirit. Grahams thoroughgoing and comprehensive exploration of Newmans ecclesial pneumatology is much more than an account of Newman's thought. It is an invitation to rethink, with Newman, the nature and mission of the sacramental community of the Church. 
In communication with the author, I am further told that he draws extensively on one of the most important of the Nicene Fathers, viz., the great Athanasius of Alexandria.  

Monday, October 22, 2012

Choosing a Coptic Pope

The recent news that the Coptic Church will choose a new pope next month has raised questions about the method for doing so. There are no cardinals, no Sistine Chapel, no chemicals to produce white smoke. The Copts, whose patriarchal head has been styled "pope" longer than the bishop of Rome has (the word simply means "father" in Greek, and thus is not necessarily or particularly attached to any bishop but can and has been used more widely) use a very different, much simpler, and much more clearly biblical method for chosing their pope. I detail some of this process in a wide examination I give to the overall polity of the Coptic Church in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity, a book which, if you have not read yet, you will want to rush out and do so--and, while you are at it, consider ordering 4920 copies for your closest friends as thoughtful Christmas gifts this year.

Those desirous of a deeper understanding of the Coptic papacy are very much in luck these days. In 2005, we had the first volume of a trilogy devoted to this very question: Stephen J. Davis, The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity (American University of Cairo Press), 224pp. This book, which I favorably reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, i described by the publisher thus:
The Copts, adherents of the Egyptian Orthodox Church, today represent the largest Christian community in the Middle East, and their presiding bishops have been accorded the title of pope since the third century A.D. This major new three-volume study of the popes of Egypt covers the history of the Alexandrian patriarchate from its origins to the present-day leadership of Pope Shenouda III. The first volume analyzes the development of the Egyptian papacy from its origins to the rise of Islam. How did the papal office in Egypt evolve as a social and religious institution during the first six and a half centuries A.D.? How do the developments in the Alexandrian patriarchate reflect larger developments in the Egyptian church as a whole - in its structures of authority and lines of communication, as well as in its social and religious practices? In addressing such questions, Stephen J. Davis examines a wide range of evidence - letters, sermons, theological treatises, and church histories, as well as art, artifacts, and archaeological remains - to discover what the patriarchs did as leaders, how their leadership was represented in public discourses, and how those representations definitively shaped the Egyptian Christian identity in late antiquity. 
This was followed, in 2010, by Mark Swanson's second volume in the series, The Coptic Papacy in Islamic Egypt: The Popes of Egypt: A History of the Coptic Church and Its Patriarchs Volume 2 (American University in Cairo Press).

The final volume of the trilogy recently appeared, co-authored by Magdi Guirguis and Nelly van Doorn-Harder, The Emergence of the Modern Coptic Papacy: The Popes of Egypt: A History of the Coptic Church and Its Patriarchs, Volume 3 (AUC Press, 2011). About this final volume the publisher tells us:
This third and final volume of The Popes of Egypt spans the five centuries from the arrival of the Ottomans in 1517 to the present era. Hardly any scholarly work has been written about the Copts during the Ottoman Period. Using court, financial, and building records, as well as archives from the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate and monasteries, Magdi Guirguis has reconstructed the authority of the popes and the organization of the Coptic community during this time. He reveals that the popes held complete authority over their flock at the beginning of Ottoman rule, deciding over questions ranging from marriage and concubines to civil disputes. As the fortunes of Coptic notables rose, they gradually took over the pope's role and it was not until the time of Muhammad Ali that the popes regained their former authority. With the dawning of the modern era in the nineteenth century, the leadership style of the Coptic popes necessarily changed drastically. As Egypt's social, political, and religious landscape underwent dramatic changes, the Coptic Church experienced a virtual renaissance, and expanded from a local to a global institution. In the second part of the book, Nelly van Doorn-Harder addresses the political, religious, and cultural issues faced by the patriarchs that led the Coptic community into the twenty-first century.

Was Origen Condemned in 553?

Debates about Origen, "Origenism," and those influenced by, or in the shadow of either (e.g., Evagrius) have raged for centuries. Was Origen condemned, and fairly? And if so, does this extend to those influenced by him? Or was this a case of his successors and disciples getting him into trouble for their own antics and perhaps dodgy positions that Origen may or may not have shared? Attempts to answer this question turn in significant measure on the fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553, whose acta we have in a new edition.

First released in hardback in 2009, and in September of this year in paperback, is another volume in a very welcome series from the University of Liverpool Press: Richard Price, ed., The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 553: With Related Texts on the Three Chapters Controversy (2012, 384pp).

About this book the publisher tells us:
Because it condemned two of the greatest biblical scholars and commentators of the patristic era, the Council of Constantinople of 553 has long been considered the most controversial of the ecumenical councils. The council and its organizer, the Byzantine emperor Justinian, used brutality toward their opponents and the falsification of documents in order to pass decrees. However, this translation of the Council’s Acts by Richard Price reveals that the theology of the council was both opportune and constructive and its contributions to Christian unity were well-intentioned and not wholly unsuccessful. In his commentary, Price thoughtfully reevaluates material neglected by historians of the period.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Orthodox Christian World (I)

Part of what motivated me to start this blog was the unprecedented deluge of new publications in Eastern Christian studies. This happy but often overwhelming situation has only been growing in intensity since 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The rate of publications has increased exponentially in the last decade especially. Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, to which you should subscribe here, reviews more new publications than many comparable journals combined. But even if, on average, we review somewhere between 50-60 new books a year, that is still only a percentage of what is out there. This blog aims to pick up and comment on yet more books, and to do things (e.g., author interviews) we are not able to do in the journal for lack of space.

Some of this deluge, of course, is attributable to the ease of electronic publishing today, and ready access to what are little more than "vanity publishers." But the books to which we try to pay attention are from top-drawer academic publishers, which makes this deluge all the more impressive. Princeton, Yale, Notre Dame. T&T Clark/Continuum, Oxford, Cambridge, Wiley-Blackwell, and Routledge all continue to bring out major works, and major collections of superlative quality. Examples include John McGuckin's The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture or his more recent two-volume Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, on which I have commented extensively.

Routledge seems increasingly--as I have repeatedly noted--to be focusing its attention on Eastern Christians in the Middle East as part of a wider program of looking at Orthodoxy, Orthodox-Muslim relations, and related realities, particularly in and after the Ottoman Empire, on which several new books from Routledge are eagerly expected next year. But for 2012 it is enough--more than enough--to have had from them a wonderful new collection under the superb editorship of Augustine Casiday, The Orthodox Christian World (Routledge Worlds) (2012, 608pp). 

Casiday, author of such well received volumes as Evagrius Ponticus (in the Routledge series on the Fathers), has gathered together an impressive list of seasoned and new scholars to treat a really impressive array of topics from across the Eastern Orthodox spectrum. 

Let me just highlight a few of the articles that are especially noteworthy, and then return later to discuss them in detail. 

In the first place, it is wonderful to see a collection that does not suffer from what others have called "Byzantine snobbery." The Oriental Orthodox, and the Assyrian Church of the East, are all given very prominent attention in numerous chapters. The Canadian scholar Robert Kitchen has a chapter on "The Syriac Tradition" followed by "The Assyrian Church of the East," both very good. 

I found especially interesting and very substantive another scholar teaching in Canada, Alexander Treiger, in his "The Arabic Tradition," discussing the role of Arab Christians not only on their own tradition, but also on Islam. I'm greatly looking forward to his forthcoming volume from Northern Illinois Press, The Orthodox Church in the Arab World (700-1700).

Antoine Arjakovsky's article "Orthodoxy in Paris: the Reception of Russian Orthodox Thinkers (1925-40)" is a wonderful and fascinating piece, which should be no surprise given the careful, influential work from Arjakovsky we have seen in the past. He records the greatly cheering news (and hitherto unknown to me) that at her canonization by the Orthodox Church, Mother Maria Skobtsova was acclaimed also as a saint by the Roman Catholic cardinal-archbishop of Paris (who attended the canonization), who asked that her feast day also be kept each year by Catholics in France on the same day as the Orthodox Church fetes her. 

Dellas Oliver Herbel, the Orthodox priest and historian, whom we are publishing this fall in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, and whom I was delighted finally to meet at OTSA in September in New York, has an excellent piece "Orthodoxy in North America" that narrates that history calmly and lucidly, aware of what can be said and what gaps remain in the historiography.

The section on the Fathers and other significant figures includes good articles on Ephraim the Syrian (again by Kitchen), John Chrysostom (by Wendy Mayer, author, with Paula Allen, of John Chrysostom), and many others, ancient and modern. Paul Gavrilyuk's piece on Sergius Bulgakov is a cogently written overview of this hugely important Russian theologian of the early twentieth century. 

There is more--much more--to be said, and I hope to do that in the coming weeks. Suffice it now to say that this book belongs in every serious library that has any interest in Eastern Christianity.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Fall Issue of LOGOS: Update

The fall issue of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies is complete and will shortly be going to press. It contains many fascinating articles, essays, and reviews, including:

Three substantial and original articles all treat diverse topics, beginning with the priest-historian Oliver Herbel, "An Old World Response to a New World Situation: Greek Clergy in the Service of the Russian Mission to America."

Michael Plekon has put together a fascinating portrait of the social thought of the Paris School, focusing in particular on Paul Evdokimov, Sergius Bulgakov, and Maria Skobtsova

Maria Teresa Fattori looks at "Benedict XIV and His Sacramental Policy on the Eastern Churches (1740-1758)."

Myroslaw Tataryn writes on "Healing and Holiness."

Several other fascinating shorter essays will also be featured, including one by the priest Robert Wild, of Madonna House, treating the question of the place of Catherine de Hueck Doherty in Russia's so-called Silver Age and its contribution to East-West rapprochement.

We also have our usual large array of book reviews. Logos, in fact, reviews in just one issue more new books in Eastern Christian studies than the next six comparable journals (at least) combined.

Reviews include one from Michael Plekon of Changing Churches: An Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran Theological Conversation, whose authors, Mickey Mattox and A.G. Roeber, I interviewed here. Plekon offers a critical but generally appreciative review.

Plekon also reviews Le jour de Saint-Esprit by Mother Maria Skobtsova (Sainte Marie de Paris), published by Cerf in Paris in 2011.

Gloria Dodd, a Mariologist at the University of Dayton's international Marian Institute, reviews Leslie Brubaker and Mary B. Cunningham, The Cult of the Mother of God in Byzantium, noting that this is a rich collection of diverse scholarly articles treating liturgics, archaeology, iconography, and much else besides.

Matthew Baker reviews the latest in the "Russian front" translated by Boris Jakim and published by Eerdmans: Sergius Bulgakov, Relics and Miracles: Two Theological Essayson which I briefly commented here. Baker notes the significance of the publication of the original in 1918, just as the iconoclastic work of the Russian Revolution was in full swing--and also the year Bulgakov was himself ordained a priest. Baker calls this book of Bulgakov's "highly recommended."

The Greek Orthodox canonist Lewis Patsavos, emeritus of Holy Cross College in Brookline, reviews the most recent book from the prolific and influential Russian Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Orthodox Christianity Volume I: The History and Canonical Structure of the Orthodox Churchnoting that this is a valuable and important book but one with a definite and limiting Russian-centred focus.

Prof. Margaret Schatkin of Boston College and Seongmoon Ahn, of Boston University, together review the collection of essays Reading Patristic Texts on Social Ethics: Issues and Challenges for Twenty-First-Century Christian Social Thought.This collection, edited by Johan Verstraeten, Johan Leemans, and Brian Matz, was published last year by Catholic University of America Press.

Brian Butcher reviews the latest book of the Armenian theologian Vigen Guroian, The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox KeyButcher appreciates the uniqueness and richness of this volume and its approach, but also notes it has some areas that give one pause.

The Byzantine liturgical scholar, and all-around fine fellow Nicholas Denysenko, reviews the translation by Steven Hawkes-Teeples (whom I interviewed here) of The Liturgical Commentaries: St. Symeon of Thessalonika.

Helene Moussa, the curator of St. Mark's Coptic Museum in Toronto, reviews a very timely book from Vivian Ibrahim, The Copts of Egypt: The Challenges of Modernisation and Identity. Moussa says that "this book is without any doubt a very significant contribution to a critical understanding of Copts and the Egyptian nation and state, as well as to the history of Middle Eastern Christians."

Moussa also reviews the scholarly collection, edited by Sharon Gerstel and Robert Nelson, Approaching the Holy Mountain: Art and Liturgy at St Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai.

The Eastern canonist Alexander Laschuk reviews David Heath-Stade's Marriage as the Arena of Salvation: An Ecclesiological Study of the Marital Regulation in the Canons of the Council in Trullo.

Habtemichael Kidane reviews Mibratu Kiros Gebru's Miaphysite Christology.

Christopher Johnson (whom I interviewed here) has a long review essay on Orthodox spirituality as treated in several books by John Romanides and Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos; and a shorter review of Veronica della Dora's fascinating book Imagining Mount Athos: Visions of a Holy Place, from Homer to World War II, which the publisher just brought out in a very affordable paperback. I interviewed Dora here.

Notre Dame's scholar of Islam, Gabriel Said Reynolds, whom I hope to interview later this year about his new book noted here, reviews David Bertaina's recent book,  as I noted here. I interviewed Bertaina last summer. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church

Amidst the renewed interest in many Eastern Christian churches since 1991, several have been relatively neglected so far, including the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which has been (as I document in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity) deeply divided over its communist past. Recent news stories suggest that its patriarch is about to resign. One of the few recent books in English to give serious scholarly attention to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is James Lindsay Hopkins, The Bulgarian Orthodox Church: A Socio-Historical Analysis of the Evolving Relationship Between Church, Nation, and State in Bulgaria (Columbia University Press, 2009), 360pp.

About his book the publisher provids a pithy overview: 

After a discussion of the Byzantine and early Ottoman eras, the author examines church-state relationships in the latter Ottoman, Communist, and post-communist periods.

This Ghastly Age

I took the train to Washington, DC last week to give a paper on Orthodox-Muslim relations at the fifth annual conference of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA), a splendid new organization bringing fresh and overdue attention to critical questions often overlooked by too many academics and others today. It was founded in 2007 thanks in significant part to the doyen of Islam scholars in North America, Bernard Lewis (whose memoirs I noted in the summer). (ASMEA, incidentally, is very committed to exploring further the questions, historic and current, of encounters between Islam and Eastern Christianity. Scholars interested in putting a panel together on this theme for next year's conference should contact me.)

It was a long train ride (though quite lovely in parts, seeing the autumnal colors in the rolling hills of West Virginia), and that enabled me to read in one go an eloquent and winsome set of memoirs from Robert Jay Lifton, Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir (2011). Lifton, a longstanding professor of psychiatry at Yale, has done pioneering work in the fields of social psychology and what he came to call "psychohistory." I discovered Lifton fifteen years ago through his most (justly) famous work The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing And The Psychology Of Genocide. Lifton wrote another work that also is of use to Eastern Christians (especially in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus) trying to understand what they lived through under communist persecution and oppression: Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China

Lifton is a unique personality, and not only because of his important and original work in the aforementioned areas and others (including a study of the survivors of the Hiroshima bombing). What shines through his memoirs is an elegant humanism and graciousness of spirit made all the more impressive by the fact that he examined people and events of ineffable horror. His interviews alone with the Nazi doctors would probably have been too much to handle for other people, but not Lifton. His capacity to look at evil (a term he unapologetically adopts, even if he explicitly eschews its theological or metaphysical overtones) and not succumb to despair is remarkable in one who describes himself as a Jewish atheist. That unflinching recognition of evil is bound up with an equally admirable refusal to demonize people, and an acutely uncomfortable awareness that goodness is mixed with evil in almost every instance. (He does not quote him, but there are clear echos here of Solzhenitsyn's famous aphorism that the line between good and evil runs right through every human heart.) Lifton, originally descended from Russian Jews, is a remarkable example of an academic who was also an activist (especially around the Vietnam War), and a prolific writer of many books in a variety of areas. Now in his late 80s, this may well be his last book, but we will continue to profit from his research and insights for decades to come. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Nicholas Denysenko on Theophanic Water Blessings

A new book from Ashgate written by Nicholas Denysenko was just published in both a Kindle edition and a hardback: The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany: The Eastern Liturgical Tradition (Ashgate, 2012, 237pp.). The author, a deacon in the Orthodox Church of America (OCA) and professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and director of the very important Huffington Ecumenical Institute, has previously published critically acclaimed articles in (inter alia) Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. I asked him for an interview about his new book, and here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us a bit about your background.

ND: I am a first-generation American, the son of post-World War II immigrants from Ukraine and grandson of an Orthodox priest. While not a stereotypical "PK," I essentially grew up in and around a rectory and took great pleasure in singing with the church choir. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a BS in Business in 1994, I took my first job with St. Mary's Orthodox Cathedral in Minneapolis as their music director. I received my M.Div. from St. Vladimir's Seminary in 2000, worked as a product manager at Augsburg Fortress Publishers until 2003, graduated from The Catholic University of America with a Ph.D. in liturgical studies and sacramental theology in 2008 (with a short stint as marketing manager at the USCCB from 2007-9), and accepted an appointment as assistant professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where I also direct the Huffington Ecumenical Institute.

AD: What led you to work in the areas of liturgical theology, and in particular on the question of Theophany and water blessing? 

Well, when I turned 18, after a lifetime of praying in my non-native language (Ukrainian), I honestly began the process of "faith seeking understanding." A friend gave me a copy of Alexander Schmemann's book Liturgy and Life
which I eagerly read. I continued to read Schmemann in my quest to understand liturgy, which I had actively engaged as a choir director. One motivation was my own need to teach liturgical music and to demonstrate to singer how music is a servant of the liturgy; the only way to accomplish this was to learn liturgical structures, history, and theology. My interest in the Theophany water blessing began in a seminar on the Holy Spirit I took with my Doktorvater, Dominic Serra, in 2004. My desire was to unpack the mystery of the so-called "double epiclesis" of the "Great are You" prayer, and my entrance into the project became something much more significant and definitive.

AD: Among several outstanding things about your study I found two especially commendable. First is your ecumenical focus in which you don't just confine yourself to the Byzantine tradition but also examine other Eastern traditions as well as Roman Catholic and Anglican liturgical treatments of Epiphany and blessings. Is there evidence of Eastern traditions influencing the Western, or vice versa?

ND: There is no doubt that the Anglican water blessing draws upon elements of the Byzantine and perhaps Armenian traditions, which are then synthesized in a beautiful blend of Theophany and Western Epiphany themes of "greeting," an anticipation (as it were) of the second coming. In other words, it's as if the Baptism of Jesus at the Jordan has a powerful eschatological flavor in anticipating his revelation as Lord and God at the end of days. More work needs to be done in this area. A Hungarian scholar is about to publish a critical edition of the blessing of waters in Latin which appears to draw heavily upon Greek euchological sources, so there is some evidence of East influencing West, in both medieval and contemporary sources.

AD: You draw on a wonderful array of people in your work, including some very prominent names in Roman Catholic, Byzantine Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox circles, inter alia. Is it possible today (in the shadow of Baumstark as it were) to do liturgical theology using anything other than such a comparative method?

ND: Employing the comparative method is essential for writing liturgical history, and I humbly consider myself to be an adherent of the Baumstark-Mateos-Taft school of comparative liturgy, with special thanks to Mark Morozowich (Dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America), who carefully taught me the method. My work is also one of sacramental theology, and here, I employed Monsignor Kevin Irwin's method of Context and Text, an enormously valuable method for gleaning liturgical theology. Liturgical Studies is gradually becoming interdisciplinary, and I think we will see these methods evolve, develop, and grow, especially now, since the liturgical movement and its fruits are increasingly scrutinized and criticized in Catholic and Orthodox circles.

AD: The second thing I greatly cheered was your chapter "Pastoral Considerations." Some liturgical scholars see their task as largely confined to narrating history, which is said to be "instructive but not normative." But you don't confine yourself only to history: you put forward some very interesting practical-pastoral proposals. Tell us what led you to do that.

ND: The task of liturgical history is to inform, and not reform. Two of the best liturgical historians of our time, Taft and Maxwell Johnson, have been quoted accordingly. In the case of the blessing of waters, we are speaking of a living tradition, a real practice in which people participate. In the case of the blessing of waters, history can inform contemporary practice, especially since the Theophany feast occurs right after the New Year, when most people have returned to work (even academics!). This feast is beloved to Eastern Christians: why not maximize and optimize participation? The models I propose are really not attempts to reform, but instead a fine-tuning--pastoral adjustments that are designed to provide people with greater access to the blessings of the feast. My proposals concerning Catholic and Reformed churches draw upon the Roman tradition of adaptation and are offered in the spirit of ecumenical gift-exchange.

AD: The current Ecumenical Patriarch, as I'm sure you're aware, is often called the "green patriarch" for his concern about ecological issues. Do you see the theology of water blessing as connected to current concerns for the environment?

ND: Yes, absolutely. The blessing of waters reveals all of creation as holy, and water, symbolized by the Jordan, is the locus for salvation. All of creation participates in the praise of God as holy, of Christ as Lord, in this feast. Water is God's preferred instrument of salvation, a gift to humanity of restoration to the community of the Trinity. The ecumenical patriarch often referred to the blessing of waters in his many speeches and homilies as a demonstration of Orthodoxy's prioritization of ecological stewardship. I contend in this study that the blessing of waters essentially demands that the Church contribute to the global task of developing a new ethos of water; we have much to contribute from our lived tradition.

AD: Your introduction notes that there is a question, in the Theophany prayers, as to the identity of the one to whom the prayers are addressed. You then note the possibility that perhaps not all prayers are addressed to the Father through Christ, but to Christ directly, and this may pose a challenge to traditional Trinitarian theology from John of Damascus onward and its resolute insistence on "protecting" the "monarchia" of the Father. Say a bit more about this if you would, including some of the ecumenical implications.

ND: The euchology and hymnography of the blessing of waters is distinctly Christological. The texts, together with the ritual action of submerging the cross into the waters, tell the story. The Church invokes her head, Christ, to sanctify the waters by entering them; the Spirit bears witness to this entrance. Comparative liturgy not only confirms, but strengthens this thesis, as the Christological trajectory of the rite is even more prevalent in the Oriental tradition. I contend that the blessing of waters should be consulted as a source in Trinitarian theology, because the rite clearly contradicts the longstanding and fatuous claim that all prayer must be addressed to the Father. My invitation to theologians is to consider the ecclesiological framework of prayer when the Church as the body calls upon the head, Christ, to act. Some might say that this framework only concerns the economy of the Trinity, and that the monarchy of the Father as the source of divinity for the three persons of the Trinity is not threatened by the framework. My hope is that this framework might be useful in an ecumenical context to advance the notion that the filioque clause can no longer be cited as a Church-dividing issue, and that theologians might recognize the dynamics of Trinitarian prayer and activity in the Theophany blessing of waters as a demonstration of fluidity in the divine economy. 

AD: Why is it that Theophany ("Jordan") in the East retains, it seems to me (at least among the East-Slavs, with whom I am most familiar), such a place of popularity in the yearly liturgical cycle? Is there something unique about this blessing that people, even without perhaps articulating the whole theology of the feast, grasp in their piety?

ND: Among many people of the Byzantine tradition, the Theophany feast carries a strong popular parallel to Christmas, with carols, and traditional foods, not to mention a similar liturgical structure. There are many potential reasons for the popularity of the Theophany feast, but if I were asked to focus on one, it's the simple human need for water. Somtimes, in a hyperacademic drive to unveil an original theological idea, we overanalyze texts and contexts and overlook the obvious. On Theophany, the people take the blessed water home and use it throughout the year. The churches are packed on similar occasions when food and drink are blessed: on Transfiguration, we bless fruits, and take them home, and of course on Pascha, pastors have to schedule multiple basket blessings. In the moment, we tend to complain about the apparently trite attitude of the people, who don't recognize receiving the Eucharist as the authentic meaning of feast. But it's erroneous to dismiss the people's recognition that the sacred is welcome in their domiciles. Whatever we bring to Church, whether it's water for the Theophany feast, bread and wine for communion, eggs and other savory foods for Pascha baskets, fruit for Transfiguration, or flowers for Dormition, the act of bringing such items to Church is authentic offering and thanksgiving, a recognition that these domestic foods and elements are holy gifts from God freely given to us for our enjoyment. These traditions so dear to the people also serve as stark reminders that the domestic setting, the family (small or extended), is sacred, and that there is no real separation between the holy space of the Church and that of the home. The time has arrived for pastors to recognize these instances as opportunities to build upon what people themselves already recognize, that God is always with us, everywhere we go, and especially in the gifts of creation He has entrusted to our stewardship. These examples represent strong liturgical episodes (to paraphrase Monsignor Kevin Irwin), and not only should we be thankful for them, but we should also recognize the divine philanthropy they convey to us.    

AD: Sum up for us what you hope the The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany: The Eastern Liturgical Tradition accomplishes.

ND: I hope the book will be informative for broad audiences. There used to be a saying about Eastern Christianity in North America that it's a well-kept secret. Scholarship on the Eastern Church and her traditions has begun the process of demythologizing Eastern Christianity. Today, almost everyone knows about icons, and among theologians, terms such as hesychasm and theosis are well-known. That said, there are many other Eastern secrets that could be unveiled and have the capacity to tell a more comprehensive narrative story that complements what most people already know about Eastern Christianity. My hope is that this book will provide insights into Eastern Christian liturgical theology that demonstrate its diversity within the tradition, its theological fluidity, and its incredibly beautiful Christology, still experienced in a lived tradition.

AD: Finally, tell us what projects you are working on now. 

ND: I'm writing a book on Chrismation for Western Christians. The premise of my book is that within the Byzantine tradition, Chrismation, like its Western sibling (Confirmation), is also a mystery in search of a theology. My book (under contract with Liturgical Press) endeavors to unpack the liturgical theology of Chrismation in dialogue with the Catholic and Reformed traditions, to take a step towards retrieving the theology of Chrismation. I'm also steadily working on an architecture project profiling select Orthodox parishes in America. My project endeavors to recast the theology of architecture as multifaceted, and no longer an instance of form following function. My thesis contends that contemporary architecture conveys the narrative story of ecclesial communities with the local Church's mission now the primary shaper of architectural form.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Met. Hilarion on Orthodoxy

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, perhaps the most prominent Russian Orthodox theologian alive today, will later this month see St. Vladimir's Seminary Press issue a translation of the second volume of his work Orthodox Christianity Volume II : Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church (SVS Press, 2012), 597pp.

About this book the publisher says:

This is the second volume of a detailed and systematic exposition of the history, canonical structure, doctrine, moral and social teaching, liturgical services, and spiritual life of the Orthodox Church. The purpose of this series is to present Orthodox Christianity as an integrated theological and liturgical system, in which all elements are interconnected. Theology finds its expression and is shaped in the liturgical experience and church art—including icons, singing, and architecture. The services, in their turn, influence the ascetic practice and the personal piety of each Christian; they shape the moral and social teaching of the Church as well as its relation to other Christian confessions, non-Christian religions, and the secular world.
The first volume provided an account of the historical arc of the Orthodox Church during the first ten centuries after Christ’s nativity, then examined the canonical structure of the Orthodox Church. This volume examines the sources of Orthodox doctrine in Scripture and Tradition; its teaching on God in Trinity and Unity, in his essence and in his energies; on the world and man; on Jesus Christ, the incarnate God; on the Church, the body of Christ; on the Theotokos, Mary; and on eschatology, the last things.
Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev has authored numerous works on theology and church history, and is an internationally recognized composer of liturgical music. In the words of Patriarch Alexei II of blessed memory, his many years of service to the mother church, his rich creative activity, and his broad perspective enable him to present the tradition of the Orthodox Church in all its diversity.
We had his first volume reviewed and our reviewer, Lewis Patsavos of Holy Cross College in Brookline, noted that it was very good if a bit Russo-centric in focus. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

New Cistercian Publications

Cistercian Publications, an imprint of Liturgical Press, has a wide and impressive array of books devoted to Eastern Christianity, especially monasticism broadly defined. Among its recent offerings we find a translation of a work by one whom the East sometimes calls "Gregory the Dialogist": Gregory the Great: On the Song of Songs (Cistercian 2012).

About this book the publisher tells us:
Gregory the Great (+604) was a master of the art of exegesis. His interpretations are theologically profound, methodologically fascinating, and historically influential. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in his exegesis of the Song of Songs. Gregory s interpretation of this popular Old Testament book not only owes much to Christian exegetes who preceded him, such as Origen, but also profoundly influenced later Western Latin exegetes, such as Bernard of Clairvaux. This volume includes all that Gregory had to say on the Song of Songs. This includes his Exposition on the Song of Songs, as well as the florilegia compiled by Paterius (Gregory s secretary) and the Venerable Bede, and, finally, William of Saint Thierry s Excerpts from the Books of Blessed Gregory on the Song of Songs. It is now the key resource for reading and studying Gregory s interpretation of the Song of Songs.
Another book of especially acute interest in this time of such strife in North Africa and the Middle East, from which Christians continue to flee by the thousands, and in which many more Christians have been killed, is Christian Salenson's Christian De Cherge: A Theology of Hope (Cistercian, 2012).

About this book the publisher tells us:
Christian de Chergé, prior of the Cistercian community at Tibhirine, Algeria, was assassinated with six of his fellow monks in 1996. De Chergé saw his monastic vocation as a call to be a person of prayer among persons who pray, that is, among the Muslim friends and neighbours with whom he and his brothers shared daily life. De Chergé's writings bear witness to an original thinker who insists on the value of interreligious dialogue for a more intelligent grasp of one's own faith. Christian Salenson shows us the personal, ecclesial, and theological foundations of de Chergé's vocation and the originality of his life and thought. He shows how the experience of a small monastery lost in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria contributes importantly to today's theological debates.
My friend Bill Mills has reviewed this book here.

Another book of interest  is Ambrose Criste and Carol Neel, trans., Anselm of Havelberg (Cistercian, 2010).

About this book the publisher says:
The Anticimenon of Anselm of Havelberg is both the outstanding medieval work on ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox and one of the period's most important explorations of the theology of history. This text's author was a bishop on Christianity's eastern frontier and companion to Norbert of Xanten, saint-founder of the Order of Premontre. The present volume, the first English translation of Anselm's Anticimenon, sets his work in the context of the early Premonstratensian (Norbertine) thought integral to the reform movement of his time. It renders Anselm's powerful voice audible to a modern English-speaking readership yearning, with him, for unity in the Church and understanding of the Holy Spirit's agency in human experience.
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